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Senators turn to Democrats’ overhaul of elections and ethics

Manchin concerned sweeping bill could worsen partisan divisions

Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., speaks with reporters as he arrives for a vote on Wednesday.
Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W. Va., speaks with reporters as he arrives for a vote on Wednesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

As outside groups ramped up multimillion-dollar campaigns for and against it, senators on Wednesday took their first formal look at Democrats’ symbolic top-priority bill, a nearly 800-page overhaul of election, campaign finance and government ethics laws. 

The Senate’s majority and minority leaders both weighed in at a nearly five-hour hearing of the Rules and Administration Committee, along with panels of experts that included Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

But the bill’s fate may come down to one senator who was not there: West Virginia’s Joe Manchin III

Manchin is the lone Democrat in the 50-50 chamber who has not yet embraced the legislation, dubbed S1 and HR1, even though he signed on as a co-sponsor when the Senate was in GOP control in the last Congress and the bill had no chance of passing. 

Manchin told reporters Wednesday that the legislation “might divide us even further on a partisan basis” but indicated he supported some provisions.

Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who both serve on the Rules Committee, sparred over the measure, which would dramatically transform voting and political money laws. 

The bill would reshape how congressional candidates may fund their campaigns by instituting an optional public financing system that would match $6 in government money for every $1 raised in small donations. The bill also would set minimum standards for voting, such as automatic voter registration, same-day registration, mandatory periods for early voting and access to no-excuse mail-in balloting.

Nonpartisan panels would also be empowered to redraw congressional districts. 

The bill would also establish new rules and ethical standards for lobbyists, lawmakers and federal officials. 

“This bill is essential to protecting every American’s right to vote, getting dark money out of our elections, as well as some very important anti-corruption reforms,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the Rules panel. “It is about strengthening our democracy by returning it to the hands of its rightful owners: the American people.”

But Republican senators, including McConnell, called it a partisan power grab by Democrats and their outside allies and said it amounted to a federal takeover of locally administered elections. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said he opposed provisions to allow for automatic voter registration for people who obtain drivers’ licenses or attend public universities because some of those people may not be U.S. citizens and therefore not eligible to vote in federal elections. 

“It would dilute the votes of every citizen who is supposed to be voting,” said Rokita, a former Republican member of the House. 

Holder advocated provisions that would make it more difficult for states to remove infrequent voters from voting rolls.

“This desire to purge voters because people decided not to exercise their right to vote disproportionately falls on people who are people of color or people who vote Democratic,” he said. “There are movements to try to keep people away from the polls, and purging people from voter registration rolls is one of the tactics that is unfortunately used too frequently.”

House Democrats approved their version of the bill on March 3 in a 220-210 vote with no GOP support and one Democrat, Mississippi Rep. Bennie Thompson, voting against it. The House passed a nearly identical bill in the last Congress. 

With Democrats’ razor-slim majority in the Senate, the measure’s fate remains murky. The overhaul has ignited calls for eliminating the 60-vote threshold to overcome a filibuster, but if Manchin doesn’t support it, the bill likely wouldn’t get even a simple majority. 

Representatives of groups backing the bill said during a press call Tuesday that they believed senators should not allow the filibuster to stand in the way of the legislation. The next step is likely a markup of the legislation after the April recess, in which members of the committee could offer amendments and changes.  

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Political money influence 

In an attempt to woo public and Senate support, outside groups have launched pricey advocacy campaigns. 

End Citizens United, whose executive director Tiffany Muller testified at the hearing Wednesday, and other groups started a $3.2 million TV advertising campaign this week in support of the measure, part of a $30 million total effort by the groups.

Opponents have similarly lined up money to spend. The conservative groups American Principles Project and the Susan B. Anthony List said last month that they were partnering against the bill with at least $5 million.

Another conservative organization, Heritage Action, has also mobilized against the measure. The group this week sponsored an episode of the “Ruthless” podcast, hosted by GOP consultants, including former McConnell chief of staff Josh Holmes, featuring an interview with McConnell. Listeners were urged to rally against the measure. 

Democrats, though, say the bill is necessary to combat efforts in numerous states, such as Georgia and Arizona, to cut back on pandemic-prompted voting changes and to rein in state legislatures that are trying to make it harder for Black people to vote. One example was a Georgia proposal to prohibit early voting on Sundays when members of Black churches organize “souls to the polls” efforts. 

Republicans said state and local officials should determine how to conduct their elections and criticized the bill for creating unfunded mandates on states to buy new voting machines, among other concerns. Republicans also criticized a provision to change the structure of the Federal Election Commission, now made up of three Democrats and three Republicans, to a five-member panel that would give one party a majority. 

“One of the goals of S 1 will be a federal takeover of the election process,” said Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, a former chair of the Rules panel. “In my view, that would be an unmitigated disaster for our democracy.”

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